Labor-hosted forum to explore issue of staffing at Berkshire Medical Center

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PITTSFIELD — Four labor organizations will sponsor a forum Tuesday about a union's staffing dispute with Berkshire Health Systems.

The groups bill the forum as "an opportunity for all stakeholders ... to join the conversation."

For a year, a bargaining committee for the Massachusetts Nurses Association has pressed to secure a new contract that sets minimum staffing levels for registered nurses at Berkshire Medical Center.

Representatives of Berkshire Health Systems have said the demand is impractical and unaffordable. It was not included in the hospital's "best and final" offer in late May, a package rejected by MNA members.

While the union's focus in bargaining also includes wages and benefits issues, "safe staffing" remain a goal, according to Joe Markman, an MNA spokesman.

"Nurses have moved away from their initial proposal of contractual staffing grids or contractual safe patient limits," he said, "but are still are bargaining over staffing improvements."

He said those include having a "charge" nurse work without patient assignments, enabling that nurse to absorb unexpected work demands.

The "community town hall" session Tuesday extends recent efforts by the union to solicit support. The MNA has sought meetings with hospital trustees.

Talks between the two sides continue, with the next negotiating session planned Sept. 27. A federal mediator is taking part in the talks.

Nurses continue to work under the terms of their last contract.

Members of the MNA authorized a one-day strike, but that job action has not been invoked. The union must give 10-day notice of a strike.

Hospital officials say they have plans in place to keep the facility open with replacement workers.

The sponsors of Tuesday's forum are the Berkshire Central Labor Council, Berkshire Brigades, Indivisible Pittsfield and Massachusetts Jobs with Justice.

Brian P. Morrison, president of the labor council, said the groups called the meeting because they sympathize with members of the MNA.

"The folks in the MNA felt they weren't being heard," Morrison said.

He said he believes there is strong public support for the nurses and noted, "Everybody in Berkshire County uses the Berkshire Medical Center."

Asked whether the forum would welcome comments in support of existing care at the hospital, Morrison replied, "We wouldn't stop anybody from talking."

The forum will be moderated by Helen Moon, a nurse and a candidate for Pittsfield City Council. It starts at 6 p.m. at the First Methodist Church, 55 Fenn St., Pittsfield. Moon could not be reached for comment.

Organizers say they hope the event elicits comments from "local residents, patients, family, nurses, neighbors, community groups, businesses and, hopefully, Berkshire Health Systems."

Michael Leary, a spokesman for the hospital, was unavailable for comment on whether someone from the facility plans to attend.

Reach staff writer Larry Parnass at 413-496-6214 or @larryparnass.


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